For years now, the Astros and Nationals have been the standard bearers for putting the ball in play. It’s a bit of an antiquated skill, and yet, somebody has to do it best. For the past couple of seasons, that’s been the Astros and Nationals.
Top-5 Contact Teams, 2019-20
From 2019-20, the Astros and Nats were masters of contact. Both teams fielded rosters flush with All-Stars boasting contact-first approaches. Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, and Alex Bregman rank second, sixth, and ninth among all hitters by contact rate from 2019-20. Anthony Rendon ranked third in that span. While Brantley and Rendon, respectively, set the pace for their clubs over the past couple of years, both rosters were littered with players adept at putting bat to ball. Josh Reddick, Adam Eaton, Starlin Castro, Jose Altuve, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto were also top-50 by contact rate.
Putting the ball in play was a skill that both organizations used to build their rosters. It was an approach by the front office more so than a developmental or tactical approach, it seems, which is a quicker and more effective way to enact a strategy. It’s easier, after all, to find assets that already do the thing that you want than to train people without the skill to adapt.
Rosters change, of course, not only by design, but by necessity. It’s simply not always viable to keep a roster intact, nor to simply swap out one contact-first player for another. You may have noticed that from the list of difficult-to-strikeout players above, that many of them no longer play for the Nats and Astros.
Eaton, Reddick, and Rendon are notable departures, but Howie Kendrick and George Springer are also gone, one for retirement, and one for Canada with the Blue Jays. Both were/are better than average at avoiding the third strike.
But as those players moved out, others with similar contact-first approaches moved in. Myles Straw took over in center for Houston (19.4% strikeout rate). Castro took over for Rendon at third (16.8%strikeout rate). Andrew Stevenson now brings a more contact-oriented approach to the Nats’ fourth outfielder role than Michael A. Taylor before him. Josh Harrison is now a regular infielder while batting as high as second in the order (15.1% strikeout rate). Even the traditional sluggers on these clubs — Soto, Bregman, Ryan Zimmerman, Yordan Alvarez — put the ball in play at least at a league-average rate.
So how’re these two clubs holding up now? Are they maintaining course? Or are they succumbing to the will of the gods and finally striking out like the rest of the darn baseball world?
Top Teams By Contact Rate, 2021
The Nationals have fallen off a little bit, but much of their offense is still working their way back from delayed starts because of COVID protocols. The Astros may soon be dealing with a similar sluggishness once their own COVID injured list is cleared. There’s a joke here to be made about contact rates and contract tracing, but I’m going to rise above that temptation.
It certainly seems as if both teams are going to finish around the top five, if not within it. But will it be enough?
They’re both off to slow starts so far this season in the macro sense. They’ve both been bit by the injury bug. The Astros know that Framber Valdez’s injury is a serious one, while the Nats are still hopeful that Soto and Stephen Strasburg will return sooner than later. Time will tell.
As of today, both teams are in last place. And while it’s early, we still don’t expect to see Houston and Washington at the bottom of their respective divisions. The Nats are just a game out of first. Houston trails Oakland by just 3 1/2 games. We know nothing yet.
Do we stand a chance at seeing a rematch of the 2019 fall classic in the 2021 edition? It wouldn’t seem like it from the way things have started. If they can get in the zone, however, both teams can quickly turn it around. FanGraphs now gives the Astros just a five percent chance of winning the World Series, while the Nats’ championship hopes are even slimmer at 0.4 percent. Of course, the Nats were never expected to win in 2019, and they did. It all starts with making the playoffs.
FanGraphs pegs the Astros with a 52.2% chance of making the playoffs, while the Nationals have just a 15% chance. This early in the season, however, there’s time to turn those odds around. These teams understand that so long as they keep putting the ball in play, anything can happen.
Photos by Icon Sportswire & All-Pro Reels Photography | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)